Illustration by Laura Miller '11
What does it take to embody the characteristics of the ideal male college student in 21st-century America?
Popular culture and social norms suggest he is an athlete, probably in one of the contact-intensive spectator sports. He is strong both physically and mentally. He is stoic. He goes out at least three nights a week and can hold his liquor. He gets a lot of women. He calls his friends’ masculinity into question, often using homophobic or sexist epithets.
But, as I’ve come to see, that “ideal” male is ignorant, too—ignorant of the damage he is doing to himself and his community by using offensive language, treating women as objects, and masking his true personality. And he is ignorant of his contribution to the negative stereotypes of male athletes.
As harsh as this sounds, I feel I can say this because I recognize at least some parts of that profile when I look in a mirror. Yes, I was ignorant. But I’m not alone. Some of these dubious traits afflict many male athletes growing up in the United States. As I look back, some were the effects of my community on me; some I chose.
From the day we are born we are influenced by our surroundings—families, friends, teachers, and the media. They affect how we act, speak, and dress, and they tell us what it means to be a man. The society we live in values hyper-masculinity by idolizing athletes and pop culture icons—the likes of Kobe Bryant, Tiger Woods, and the cast of Jersey Shore—and these individuals help create an image of the ideal man that far too many kids aspire to achieve.
It is time to change this ideal, and the best place to start is here. Now.
On American college campuses, these notions of manhood get played out in dramatic fashion. It is the first place many of us are free from supervision, and there’s no denying that alcohol becomes a factor.
I went through the first three years of my college career on a sort of masculine autopilot, trying hard every day to fit this vision without ever examining where it came from, what it meant, or how it affected my classmates. I never recognized I was wearing a mask in public or that my definition of masculinity was hurting people. The cutting, derogatory remarks that I used on teams and in everyday life (“You hit like a girl”) demeaned women and homosexuals. Like many men, I defined my masculinity as not being a woman and not being gay.
The turning point came in my first semester as a senior. I decided to take Boys to Men, a course taught by Professor of Education Mark Tappan, to balance a heavy economics schedule. I never expected it would be one of the most influential courses in my time at Colby.
The class examines issues of masculinity and how boys negotiate the messages they receive as they develop. This was the first time I was asked to reflect on my own experience as a man and the confusing terrain that leads to idealized American manhood.
I realized many of the ways I learned to prove my masculinity weren’t just unpleasant to women, they actually created an unsafe community for them. A thesis by Heather Pratt ’11 on sexual assault at Colby opened my eyes to how women had been assaulted by members of their own community. I noticed that sexual assault was almost always framed as a women’s issue when, in reality, it is primarily men who perpetrate acts of sexual violence. Sexual violence needed to be reframed as a men’s issue, and men have to take responsibility. But how?
The men in the class wanted to initiate change from within Colby. Professor Tappan told us about a University of Maine organization called Male Athletes Against Violence. Eric Barthold ’12, Matt Carey ’11, and I decided to adopt the name and adapt the club to circumstances at Colby. The goal is to create accountability for unacceptable behavior, not only for members of MAAV but among Colby men. We also need to break some stereotypes associated with male athletes. If we achieve this goal, we will have a safer community for everyone, including men.
Interest and support is encouraging. About 300 male athletes signed a pledge against sexual assault and homophobic, sexist, and racist language and wore wristbands to visibly signify to women their commitment to providing a safe space. More importantly, any member who witnesses questionable behavior is expected to intervene and counsel.
We completed training to provide peer education, so next year at orientation for first-year athletes MAAV members will discuss sexual assault. I’m convinced that this will be more effective than outside lecturers because it will come from respected members of the student body who know how campus life operates.
Colby has been the best four years of my life. My relationships here, coupled with what I learned about gender issues, forced me to ask, “How can I give back to a community that has given so much to me?” I think we have done it through Male Athletes Against Violence. Our goal, when we started, was ultimately to create an environment where women and members of the LGBT community feel safer on campus and where male athletes will be prejudged less often. Matt, Eric, and I are proud to have been instrumental in introducing MAAV to Colby, and as we leave, our greatest hope is that the legacy lives on.
Cody McKinney was a goaltender on the men’s hockey team for four years, finishing his Colby career with 40 wins. He earned distinction in economics and received All-Academic NESCAC honors in 2011.